Thursday, March 22, 2012

Initial 2011 ACS Salary Survey data out: unemployment at 40-year high

There it is, folks, the highest unemployment rate for ACS members since they started doing the survey in 1972. I should note that the ACS surveyers will ask you about your employment status for a particular period of time, which (in this case) is March 2011. The historical data comes from the C&EN summaries of the ACS Salary Survey data. 
A couple more comments:

More bad news to come? I've long noted that the BLS unemployment rate for chemists and the ACS unemployment rate more-or-less tracks. So this is ominous:
According to BLS, the unemployment rate for 2011 among “chemists and materials scientists” was 6.1%. “As the BLS rate is an average for the entire year, and the ACS 2011 number is based on employment status at one point in time, the BLS number may indicate that the ACS 2012 rate will exceed 4.6%,” says Elizabeth McGaha, manager of research and member insights in M&SA. 
McGaha also points out, however, that over the past 40 years ACS member unemployment has often peaked one year after the U.S. peak. The exception to this pattern was in the early 1990s, when the ACS rate continued to rise for four years after U.S. unemployment began to drop.
It is my assumption that while the rise and fall in the unemployment rate of chemists is cyclical, the overall drop in US employment of chemists may indeed be structural. Therefore, I expect that the ACS unemployment rate will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, reflecting what we saw in the 1990s, but worse.

What about postdocs?: This is also an interesting comment from Baum and McGaha:
Along with the rise in unemployment, ACS chemists reported a notable drop in postdoc positions—only 1.8% of ACS members held postdocs in 2011 compared with 4.0% in 2010.
I'm really confused by this development. Are people dropping out of the chemistry pipeline, or is this just some weird artifact? Dunno.

Salaries coming back? From the article: 
Chemists’ salaries, however, rebounded slightly in 2011 after falling from 2009 to 2010 and are keeping pace with inflation, McGaha says. For the first year since 2008, the median salaries of chemists were up for all degree levels in 2011.
This is good news (?), but I don't know what it means until we see some actual numbers. I'll keep you posted. 


  1. I would say the decline in number of ACS member postdocs is a result in a decline in the willingness to purchase an ACS membership rather than a real decrease in the number of postdocs. The ACS membership is pretty useless these days... The job fair at the ACS is pretty terrible.

    It should also be noted that the real unemployment among chemists is most likely higher than the one reported for ACS members. I imagine the ACS membership may be one of the first things to go once unemployed. Although the ACS has been recently offering free memberships to those without jobs.

  2. Again I ask: what is the unemployment rate for US industrial chemists; organic chemists; medchemists and what percent of unemployed chemists left the profession? How many non ACS member US industrial chemists who are not in these numbers are unemployed? What percent of the US industial chemists actually responded to the ACS survey? If the ACS would do a real life survey and really dig into the numbers, I think things will look a lot worse than the official jerk-water numbers the ACS publishes.

    The problem for the ACS is the numbers are now so bad that they can no longer be obscured by a fake survey.

  3. I would hazard that another reason (in addition to postdocs realizing that the ACS is totally worthless) for the drop in postdocs is a severe dropoff in federal funding levels among the chemical sciences. Funding rates are running at or near all time lows.

    I am a postdoc transitioning to an industrial position (finally) and I got rid of the ACS membership long ago. If I wanted to buy overpriced insurance or if I gave a damn about the diversity of the chemical field, maybe I would care. How silly of me first priority is science, not social engineering.

  4. CJ, Great work on all of this analysis and helping to spread the conversation ...
    I, like you, think that the issues are structural. And, I have no idea what it's going to take to rebound. As Steve Jobs said to President Obama (about jobs that had been shipped over seas), "Those jobs are not coming back." I think that we're all going to see a steady-state where chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers have research and production centers in many different countries. I mean ... this is going on now. But I think that manufacturers are going to realize that having multiple centers in many places (not just where labor is cheapest) is really what they want.
    @Anon 8:46, I completely agree that we should be getting this data. But, I think that it may be much more difficult/costly than you think to do this on a yearly basis. How can you even track chemists who aren't ACS members? You'd need graduation data from all colleges and employment information from all employers. I don't know that this will ever happen.

  5. If the ACS gave two Sh*ts about the employment lives of chemists, they would pay the over priced ACS management less money to live the good life and direct the savings to actually getting real numbers to help us all understand what being a chemist means in terms of employement and economic well being. The ACS has a $100MM+ annual budget. They could spare a dime to actually help chemists get real data on their future employment prospects could they?

  6. Here is my cynical but plausible theory on how salaries come back.

    Rudy Baum @2008 rate + 10 35k postdocs = 64.5k average
    the same and one postdoc giving up = 67.5k average
    the same and Rudy getting 10% raise = 71k average


  7. Do the ACS statistics show the unemployment levels of industrial chemists vs. academic chemists? It seems to me that these two different types of workers participate in two different labor markets, with little crossover between the two, so there is not much value in lumping them together into the same group.

  8. In support of the idea that unemployment like this is cyclic:

    "ACS: Disgruntled Chemists Seek New Activism from an Old Society"

    1. That, or the ACS has continued to ignore its members for the past 40+ years.

    2. Thanks for the link. I think there is a lot to this idea of chemistry unemployment being cyclical. Hopefully we're on the cusp of an upward trend.

  9. I supported Allen Nixon and voted for him. We actually thought the ACS cared about our votes. Now how stupid was that? The ACS cares about the ACS and only the ACS. ACS members exist only to justify tax exempt status and to provide free editing, reviewing and written materials for ACS evil publishing empire.

    Allen never seemed to get that much to his frustration. The ACS president is just a figure head that exists so the members feel that somehow they actually impact this self dealing organization. The ACS makes a big deal of the presidential elections to create the illusion of importance - think Wizard of OZ. The ACS prefers an academic ACS president parroting the party line, but if an ACS president actually trys to change the world, s/he ignored for a year until the new guy shows up. The real power players at the ACS collect their inflated pay and run their tax exempt publishing house. Members? What an inconvience they are.

    If chemists were to boycott the ACS, demand tax supported research be freely available to the scientists who produce it and the public who pays for it, well then ACS will come alive like a trapped tiger to protect the gravy train. Now that is what matters to the ACS. You can go to the bank on that one!

  10. But, in an academic environment, ACS membership is stressed as part of career development. It takes a while for some of us to get the propaganda out of our heads. I have worked continuously in industry and for a research institutes since my graduation. I dropped my ACS membership a few years ago because I also saw no value in it. In fact, it was much the opposite. I regularly received a self-contradicting, semi-political rag in the mail every week informing me what I should believe, how I should vote and how we should fear the open source movement. But my favorite part? The alternation between stories about how evil Republicans were depressing the job market for chemists and stores about how the same evil politicians were not allowing enough foreign grad students into the country to stock the labs of the academic elite. I could have tolerated someone espousing one position or the other, but both at the same time? That is a sign of a lack of intelligence or blind political ideology. I took it as the latter.

    I do support other professional societies who still respect their mission and their membership. Unfortunately, that's not the ACS.